At the age of twenty-four, Jean entered the Jesuit novitiate at Rouen, and ill-health seemed to dog one who later would be remem-bered as the most robust of the blackrobes. Such poor health shortened somewhat his course of studies and brought on an early ordination to the priesthood in February 1622. Three years later he sailed off to Canada, a land that would never forget him.
Brebeuf's initial contacts with the Indians he had come to convert to Christianity were with the Algonkian Montagnais close to Quebec. In his first winter in Canada, 1625-1626, he learned something about the Algonkian language and perhaps still more about Indian ways. He was a shrewd observer and learned quickly and well.
We know that in time this affable Norman would become an expert in the Huron language and culture. He would also write long detailed reports that set him apart as Canada's first serious ethnographer.
Longing to do missionary work among the promising Hurons, he left for their country on July 25, 1626. His companions were a fellow Jesuit Anne de None and a Recollet Father Joseph de la Roche Daillon. Anne de None was forced to withdraw in 1627; la Roche Daillon followed suit in 1628; and Brebeuf himself was recalled by his superior to Quebec in June 1629. The occasion was the imminent capitulation of Quebec to the Kirke brothers fighting on behalf of English interests.
Brebeuf left his mission field with much knowledge of the Huron language and the Huron people but also with a heavy heart. His Huron friends were no less downcast at his - for them - inexplicable depar-ture.
Paul le Jeune, in his Relation of 1633 describes
Brebeuf's break with his beloved Hurons in these terms: "When Father Brebeuf
was begin-ning to make himself understood, the arrival of the English compelled
him to leave these poor people, who said to him at his departure:
'Listen, you have told us that you have ~ Father in heaven who made all, and that he who did not obey Him was cast into the flames. We have asked you to instruct us. When you go away, what shall we do?'"
Most Frenchmen and all missionaries were repatriated to France in this year of 1629. Brebeuf, unaware of the future, now began a round of minor administrative duties in Jesuit houses of Normandy. Actually, he was only marking time. Canada would soon beckon once again!
RETURN TO HURONIA
With the signing of the treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632, France regained control of New France and the blackrobes could resume their interrupted labors. This time Brebeuf set out with two fellow Jesuits, Anthony Daniel, the future martyr, and Ambroise Davost. They arrived in Quebec on May 23,1633. Br6beuf had been away four years.
These three blackrobes set out on the arduous canoe trip to Huronia in July 1634. They did not have an easy time of it, especially Davost who traveled with a surly crew of Hurons. Brebeuf has preserved for us an excellent account of this trip to Huronia in his Relation of 1635. The whole of this Relation which he sent to Le Jeune at Quebec is a mine of information about the trip, the Hurons and the land of Huronia. One simply has to marvel at the direct, forceful and entertaining narrative skill of Brebeuf.
The trip itself from Three Rivers to Huronia covered roughly 800 miles. The route followed by Brebeuf and his companions was the Ottawa river route, for the St. Lawrence river and Lake Ontario pas-sage had been successfully blockaded by the hostile Iroquois bent on destroying both the Huron fur trade and the Hurons themselves.
THE LONG VOYAGE
Paddling their light bark canoes, for hours at a stretch, the Hurons traveled up the St. Lawrence from Three Rivers to the point where this great river met the Ottawa. They then ascended the Ottawa to where it joined, well to the north, the Mattawa which took them to Mud Lake. Further along they crossed large and, at times, rough Lake Nipissing, the region of their friendly allies the Algonkian Nipissings. From the western end of Lake Nipissing they descended the French River until they came to Georgian Bay, a rather large inlet of Lake Huron.
Once they had reached Georgian Bay, the Hurons were back in home waters and at the north-northwest boundary of Huronia.
This long trip, some 800 miles, was not a smooth one, for the rivers were full of dangerous rapids and impassable waterfalls. These natural barriers called for wearisome portages when canoes and equipment had to be laboriously carried or dragged, often long distances over rugged terrain. On this trip, his second to the upper country, Br6beuf counted the number of such portages and noted that the party carried their things thirty-five times and dragged them at least fifty!
As for their food on the way, Brebeuf mentioned that this usually consisted of corn ground somewhat coarsely between two stones. By mixing it with water they made a kind of gruel. Sometimes they ate a bit of fish caught by chance, but usually it had to be purchased from some Indian tribe along the way.
The trip was never a pleasant one, for all had to sleep on the bare earth or on hard rock, and this after trudging often in water, mud and through the dark, entangled forest, where swarms of mosquitoes and black flies made life completely miserable. At night, the missionaries had to sleep beside the exhausted Hurons and endure the inevitable stench of sweaty and unwashed bodies.
Brebeuf also mentioned the long, tiresome silence one was reduced to, especially when ignorant of the Indian tongue.
The paddling, of course, was grueling and prolonged, and could last from shortly after sunrise to sunset. This and the constant portaging left the unaccustomed European bone-weary and exhausted and scarcely made the new day a welcome one. It was indeed a sobering introduction to the mission land of Huronia.
Brebeuf described his own experience of 1634 as follows: "To be sure, I was at times so weary that my body could do no more. But at the same time my soul was filled with great happiness as I realized that I was suffering this for God. No one can know this feeling unless he has experienced it."
A REAL PSYCHOLOGIST!
A few years later, in 1637, Brebeuf drew up a list of instructions for Jesuit missionaries destined to work among the Hurons. These reflect his own true and tried experience and a special sensitivity towards the Indians themselves: you must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers; you must never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking; carry a tinder-box or a piece of burn-ing-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp, as these little services win their hearts; try to eat the food they offer you, and eat all you can, for you may not eat again for hours; eat as soon as the day breaks, for Indians, when on the road, eat only at the rising and the setting of the sun; be prompt in embarking and disembarking and do not carry any water or sand into the canoe; be the least troublesome to the Indians; do not ask questions: silence is golden; bear with their imperfections, and you must try always to be and to appear cheerful; share little gifts with them; always carry something during the portages; do not be ceremonious with the Indians; do not paddle unless you intend always to paddle; the Indians will keep later that opinion of you which they have formed during the trip; always show any other Indians you meet on the way a cheerful face and show that you readily accept the fatigues of the journey.
Echon, the name by which Brebeuf was known among the Hurons, arrived safely in Huronia on August 5th. He was warmly welcomed by his friends of 1626-1629, and at first he lodged with a leading Huron, benefiting from the traditional Indian hospitality. Later, Brebeuf de-cided it would be wiser for the missionaries and their French domestics to build a cabin of their own. Accordingly, they erected a simple but solid cabin, Indian style, in the village of Ihonatiria.
THE DIFFICULT YEARS
In the years that followed, the blackrobes had to contend with all the reluctance of the Hurons to accept new ways and especially new religious beliefs. Illnesses that afflicted the Hurons because of their con-tacts with the whites and because of their lack of basic hygiene com-plicated the missionaries' dealings with the Hurons. Superstitious as a group the Hurons readily blamed the newcomers for any disaster that occurred.
So progress and evangelization were slow. It would be only in June 1637 that Brebeuf would succeed in making his first adult convert in good health, a leading Huron by the name of Pierre Tsiouendaentaha. Because of this man's example and that of the famous Joseph Chiwatenha, a convert two months later, Christianity began to make slow but sure headway.
Yet in 1637 everything nearly ended in total disaster. Dejected by recurring epidemics, crop failures and defeats in battle, those Hurons opposed to the presence of the blackrobes persuaded the council to condemn them to death. The missionaries even drew up a sort of last will and testament. But, even with death staring them in the face, Brebeuf and the others, much to the astonishment of the Hurons, carried on calmly and bravely and finally overcame the crisis.
In 1638, Brebeuf was replaced as superior in
Huronia by Jerome Lalemant. He moved to the Huron village of Teanaostaiae.
At first, he succeeded admirably, but disaffection set in and Brebeuf and
his com-panion Father Chaumonot were severely beaten in an uprising.
Later, after a fruitless mission to the distant Neutral nation, Brebeuf was sent for a respite to Quebec; for one thing, he had a broken left clavicle as a reminder of that dangerous and disheartening trip.
From 1641 to 1644 Brebeuf had to serve his
beloved Huronia from Quebec where he acted as provisioner for the missions
of Georgian Bay. But even here he was not spared persecution and suffering,
in the form of the increasingly bold Iroquois marauders. These "pirates
of the fur trade" and of the Huron supply convoys interrupted and pillaged
a number of his precious shipments.
The great man finally returned to Huronia in September of 1644. For him it was a moment of profound joy.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
In a way the next few years would be the golden years for the Christian faith in Huronia. More and more the Hurons listened to their black-robes, followed instructions with rapt attention and then asked for baptism. The numbers of the baptized increased steadily and by 1647 could be counted in the thousands.
THE GATHERING STORM
In 1648 Huronia began to crumble under the incessant attacks of the well-armed Iroquois now determined to destroy their long-standing enemy the Huron nation. The Hurons, for all their bravery, were very negligent in maintaining vigilance and allowed themselves time and time again to be ambushed and overrun.
We know that in 1647 no Huron convoy dared
go down to trade at Three Rivers. On July 4, 1648 a large force of Iroquois
surprised and destroyed Teanaostaiae~, a large Huron outpost to the south.
It was a crushing blow. The Iroquois swiftly withdrew before any counter-attack
could be mounted against them. On March 16, 1649, 1200 well-armed
Iroquois, escaping all notice,
attacked the village of St. Ignace at dawn and seized it and its inhabi-tants with ridiculous ease. A few hours later they besieged the neigh-boring village of St. Louis and, after a short hut fierce struggle, over-whelmed it too. It was here that they laid hands on Brebeuf and his younger companion Gabriel Lalemant. These were dragged off in great triumph to St. Ignace.
Fastened to stakes and summarily subjected to brutal torture the two blackrobes now faced their moment of martyrdom, and it had come suddenly and without warning.
Brebeuf was assailed with blows to his head, face, shoulders, loins and legs. Yet all he thought of was his beloved Hurons now fellow captives. "My children," he said to them, "let us lift our eyes to heaven at the height of our afflictions; let us remember that God is the witness of our sufferings, and will soon be our exceeding great reward. Let us die in this faith; and let us hope from his goodness the fulfillment of his promises. I have more pity for you than for myself; but sustain with courage the few remaining torments. They will end with our lives. The glory which follows them will never have an end."
"Echon," these said to him, "our spirits will be in heaven when our bodies shall be suffering on earth. Pray to God for us, that he may show us mercy. We will invoke him even until death."
For the next few hours it was torture by fire, necklaces of red-hot hatchets, burning-coals, mutilation, mock baptism with boiling water and scalping. "Father Jean de Brebeuf," writes his friend Paul Ragueneau, "suffered like a rock, insensible to the fires and the flames, with-out uttering any cry, and keeping a profound silence, which astonished his executioners themselves. No doubt, his heart was then reposing in his God. Then, returning to himself, he preached to those infidels, and still more to many Christian captives, who had compassion on him."
Death came for this stalwart blackrobe about four p.m., on that March 16, 1649. He who could be described as an apostle, a brave adventurer, a skilled writer, a careful ethnologist, a man of vision had now become a martyr. His goodness was legendary with all who had known him - Champlain, his Jesuit brethren who loved and admired him, Mere Marie de l'Incarnation and thousands of unknown Hurons.
A MAN OF GOD
In a tale briefly told, it is so easy to leave much unsaid. We must under-stand, however, that this man was a real apostle and a man of "eminent holiness." God for him was a huge, pressing reality and he longed to share his faith and deep happiness with others, especially those who had never heard of Him. For him, the Indians were his brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Simple and straightforward, Brebeuf possessed a gentleness that won hearts. No one could question his courage, his love of the cross and his dedication. He was also one of those quiet, effective leaders among men. Yet, like all the saints, he was so unsure of himself before God. With disarming simplicity he wrote on one occasion: For fear that God should cut me off at the root, as a fruitless tree, I have prayed him that he still suffer me to stand, this year; and I have promised Him that I would yield Him better fruits than in the past."
Brebeuf died at the age of fifty-six years by the kind of death fitting for the first apostle to the Hurons. Church authorities recognized this officially on June 29,1930, when Jean de Brebeuf and his companions were canonized by Pope Pius XI.